On public domain photography

Apparently my most viewed photo — meats in the market in Oaxaca.

I don’t have much talent as a photographer, but I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take some pretty interesting trips with my wife, Lara, on which I at least try to be an enthusiastic photographer. One outcome of these attempts is a collection of so-so photographs of places and things that don’t do a whole lot other than taking up space on our hard drive.

As an intellectual property buff with an interest in the creative commons (here intentionally lower-cased, but yes, in Creative Commons as well) the solution for this situation is obvious: share! But as a pragmatist with only a modest belief in the quality of the images, questions quickly arise. What to share? Where to share? On what terms?

Kea at Luxmore Hut (Kepler Track, Fiordland, New Zealand)
A juvenile kea on the Kepler track in Fiordland, New Zealand.

In most cases, that last question is generally the easiest for me: my preference is generally to release these into the public domain. Following the last century’s regular expansions of copyright, today’s public domain is just far too small (take it away, alma mater!). And, as a user of images, I find the paucity of quality public domain photographs to be a regular frustration.  Plus, public domain status can be motivating! While I can easily convince myself that the world doesn’t need another run-of-the-mill picture of any given subject, I have experienced firsthand the lack of on-point public domain pictures. So I might not take the most beautiful or captivating photo of the horse festival in Tagong, but I’ll share the photo anyway knowing that the public domain could use the contribution.

Moreover, there’s no restriction I could put on most of these that would give me any satisfaction. I don’t ask for attribution (though I certainly don’t mind it) in part because I know that doing it artfully can be tough for many uses of images. I don’t care about commercialization because I took the pictures without the need (or, frankly, potential) to generate revenue, and am instead gratified just to see them used. So, in most cases (there are exceptions!), I find it best, easiest, and most rewarding to simply relinquish the rights. Fortunately, Lara supports me in this, because we don’t always know who the photographer was and she gamely plays along in jointly dedicating things to the public domain.

A warthoglet in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

To some extent, how we’re sharing the images does some work to drive where we share them. To be honest, I don’t know of many good places to release images into the public domain. Yes, CC0, in theory, works anywhere, but not all methods or platforms are created equal! I want these to be discoverable, and I want them to be discoverable as public domain images. For my money, that leaves Flickr and Wikimedia Commons as the two most likely suspects. If I were a better person, I’d post them to the non-profit, community-supported Wikimedia Commons (maybe I will eventually!), but I’m lazy and Flickr is easy. Flickr it is!

So, then, what to share? To be honest, sometimes my own need drives the share. In my professional life I want to model best practices in the use of copyrighted work so, when posting to my workplace blog, I want to do things right. Sometimes, as with the ugliest photo I’ve shared, this means finding and sharing one of my own images just because it’s thematically right for a narrow purpose, and then sharing it to help facilitate and document my own use.  Otherwise, it’s looking for a combination of factors: is this a photograph that others might conceivably find useful? Is it of high quality? Aesthetically pleasing? Unique? Special consideration goes to subjects I think might be underrepresented in the public domain, as with New Zealand’s Heaphy Track.

Flipping through my household’s modest collection of public domain images, it’s clear that many don’t fare terribly well under the standards above, but—hey!—this is all a work in progress, and something we’re still figuring out. Any which way, I figure sharing is better than hoarding.



I’m not a new year’s resolution kind of guy, but this year I have a few:

  • Speak in complete thoughts and sentences. I’m inclined toward parentheticals (both written and spoken), and they can derail the expression of complete thoughts.
  • Write more. In all kinds of modes and venues.
  • Recognize the difference between productive and unproductive distractions, and avoid the latter.
  • Practice focus.

We’ll see how it goes. Can’t hurt.

ResearchGate, Elsevier, Article Sharing, and You

Originally published on the UC Davis Scholarly Communications Blog

ResearchGate and the titans of scholarly publishing have had a rancorous couple of weeks. Publishers are sending, by their account, millions of copyright “takedown” notices—demands to remove content that online intermediaries are generally obliged to obey. And now Elsevier and the American Chemical Society have filed suit against ResearchGate in Germany. We don’t yet have specifics on the nature of the lawsuit, but it demonstrates how motivated the publishing industry is to stem the tide of article sharing.

Although the fight seems largely to be between big business (and big societies), at the heart of it is something a little closer to home: the scholarship that Elsevier authors and ResearchGate users—that is, by and large, you—create. So where do you fit into all of this? Appearances notwithstanding, you’re right at the center.

More precisely, your place lies somewhere between the paperwork you’re asked to sign when you publish and the policies your journal has adopted regarding the sharing of their articles. Your publishing agreements set out the basic groundrules—what rights your publisher has, and what rights you have, to your work. Publisher policies can amend this framework somewhat, providing you greater latitude to share your work than the original agreement might have done. But, other than when articles are published on Open Access terms, these arrangements are typically relatively restrictive about when and how article sharing is allowed. A common practice is to only allow distribution of the “author’s final version”—the one that follows peer-review but comes before publisher edits and typesetting—and then to restrict the kinds of places where those versions can be shared.

Authors often don’t comply with these restrictions, but, for many publishers, ResearchGate is an easier target than authors themselves. There’s only one ResearchGate (and only a handful of ResearchGate-like companies), whereas there are countless authors. And, frankly, many are reticent to blame the authors on which they depend rather than the intermediaries they could happily live without. But, all the same, users of ResearchGate or Academia.edu can expect to receive notices from their publishers, and to see some portion of the work they’ve posted be “taken down” and disappear from view.

The key takeaway is that if you value the sharing that ResearchGate provides, there are better ways to go about doing it. The UC Open Access policies, for instance, preserve your right to share your work in many circumstances, and they are worth knowing. Publishing in Open Access journals with Creative Commons licenses is the best, surest path to being free to share your scholarship where you like in its final, published form. And if you read your publisher’s policies, you may find other outlets for sharing your work where it won’t be casually taken down.

And if you need support, come ask for help at the the scholarly communications program. By design, there is quite a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt going around regarding how to properly share your work, but there need not be. There are many lawful, effective options and we can walk you through that process. So, poke through some of the helpful links below, and you can always get in touch with for assistance at scholcomm@ucdavis.edu.

How eScholarship handles takedown notices

The Authors Alliance on knowing your rights when it comes to takedown notices

The SHERPA/RoMEO database of publisher copyright and self-archiving policies

CC0 and Data Citation

Originally posted on the UC Davis Library Scholarly Communications Blog, August 16, 2017.

I always recommend CC0 public domain waivers as the best practice for public data sharing. There are all sorts of good reasons why public domain waivers work better and more predictably than other alternatives, including the traditional Creative Commons license suite – but you can (and should!) read about those elsewhere. Instead, I want to address one common worry people have about applying a CC0 public domain waiver to their datasets. It often looks something like this:

I want to share my data, but it is important to me that I’m cited when people use it. I prefer CC BY to CC0 because this kind of attribution is what I care about most.

Good news! In most cases, your right to see your contributions cited is exactly the same under both CC0 and CC BY. Why? Because citation practices are built around ethical norms, not around legal requirements. The CC BY license does, of course, require “attribution.” But all this means, essentially, is that users agree to provide identifying information whenever the work is shared with the public. When it comes time for someone to recognize the role your data played in their research—when it’s time to provide that citation—CC BY is silent. Regardless of whether you use CC BY or CC0, you will have to turn somewhere else to see that your work is properly cited: academic integrity.

Plagiarism, Copyright, and Citations

Fortunately, well established norms around plagiarism are there to fill this gap, and they are already part of your day-to-day experience as a scholar. When using or referencing someone else’s ideas and contributions, you cite your sources. You don’t do this because of copyright or because of a license term; you do it because honesty, transparency, and academic ethics require it. Plagiarism steps in to resolve issues around credit where copyright would otherwise be silent.

So if your source is in the public domain, of course you still cite your source.  And if your data source is in the public domain because of a CC0 public domain waiver? Easy: you cite your source and don’t think twice.

And if you think that using a CC0 waiver might be interpreted by users as an invitation to plagiarize, think again. Among users of CC0 public domain waivers, whether for data or otherwise, it is completely normal to ask for recognition, and it is completely normal for users of CC0 works to happily provide it. It shouldn’t take any special leaps of faith to imagine scholars to get it right on citation. After all, you’re already doing it all the time.

Redundancy is resistance: share your scholarship

Originally posted on the University of California Office of Scholarly Communication blog, August 2017.

Who has the right to make your scholarship available? Who is able to read it? And who can disappear it?

If you haven’t given these questions much thought to date, it is worth having a fresh look as national conversations about the power of information—and the awful power of misinformation—continue to grow in prominence. It is a bleak testament to the importance of the academic enterprise that the ways in which scholarship is made and accessed are disputed territory in the campaign against facts.

Information—and access to information—are surprisingly fragile. Yes, an increasing amount of scholarship and research data is now made publicly available, even when not published “open access,” particularly when federally funded or produced by the government. But many times, these public access resources are held only by the government or are only made freely available to the public through government programs. Even assuming the best, as formerly publicly accessible governmental resources go dark, the precariousness of single points of access to information and research of public importance has never been in sharper relief.

UC campuses and universities around the United States, distressed at the potential disappearance of government data, have been working to see it backed up. The Internet Archive, similarly, is creating a complete backup of its collections (including the invaluable materials in its Wayback Machine) in Canada to ensure they stay safe. But what can individual researchers at UC do to make certain their contributions remain available, regardless of what happens in DC?

The best first step is to see that your work isn’t merely available somewhere, but that it is redundantly available.

Today’s environment is an important reminder that any given institution might ultimately prove to be a flawed steward of the information in its control. Unfortunately, this risk can be compounded by our traditional mechanism for conveying knowledge, namely, to concentrate the authority to distribute scholarship, via the author’s copyright, in the hands of a very limited number of parties. Most typically, this would mean giving a single publisher broad control over where, when, and how a work of scholarship might appear. The risk this arrangement poses for authors and for the public is that a copyright owner might use its control to silence a work, rather than to further its reach. This might sound paranoid, but there is no shortage of examples of copyright used in precisely this way, whether it is the Ecuadorian government seeking to silence criticism of its former president or the owner of a basketball team looking to get rid of an embarrassing photograph. Less overtly censorial (but just as problematic) is the long track record among copyright holders of letting works fall out of print and out of view—or literally letting them rot—rather than keep them in the public eye for the duration of our ever-longer copyright terms.

Happily, it’s increasingly common for the rights over scholarship to be more diffusely distributed, and savvy authors have multiple avenues for ensuring their work doesn’t go dark. Each of the following might have the power to share a particular work of scholarship with the public:

  • Publishers, of course, serve this function.
  • Authors often retain rights to share their work, most particularly as a “preprint” version. You can learn more about publisher policies on author sharing on SHERPA/RoMEO.
  • Universities, under open access policies, can have the right to share institutionally affiliated scholarship (see below).
  • Government agencies now often require authors to share the research they fund.
  • The public itself might be empowered to share scholarly work, such as when it is published on open access terms under a Creative Commonslicense.

Posting scholarship redundantly helps overcome the shortcomings of a given venue. For UC researchers, our open access policies can be a particularly important bulwark against threats to your work’s accessibility. The mechanics are simple: the policies empower you to make your scholarship publicly available through an additional channel, UC’s eScholarship. In most cases, you have this right regardless of the specific language used in your publishing agreements. It’s a powerful way around restrictions that might otherwise keep your work solely in someone else’s control.

Own your OA Policy

Harvard-style open access policies are great. I’m glad my institution has one, and I think the mechanics are both clever and generally beneficial. But I’m often frustrated about some of the fiddly implementation details that leave faculty confused or, worse, exposed. These are university policies, thoughtfully crafted, that universities can and should stand behind. This means more than just crafting the license and alerting publishers; in my read, it also requires sensible notice and takedown policy and elimination of all doubt when it comes to inconsistencies with faculty contractual obligations.

Owning your OA policy step 1: take the breach of contract issue head on

Here’s the problem:  Harvard-style OA policies take the form of a license that faculty (and maybe others) grant to the university.

But many of the publishing agreements faculty sign purport to transfer or license some or all of their rights to their work to the publisher and warrant that the rights are being granted unencumbered.

The smart folks who crafted these things took a good look at the copyright act (Section  205(d)-(e)) and reached the conclusion that this state of affairs poses no real problem so long as publishers are made aware of the OA policies. Concentration in the scholarly publishing industry helps quite a bit in that regard.

At least, there’s no problem if your sole interest is ensuring the validity of the university’s right to make covered works available to the public. But what if you want to ensure faculty aren’t at risk for complying? Or avoiding compliance for fear of legal risk?

There are awfully good arguments to be made that there simply isn’t credible legal risk for authors signing these problematic publishing agreements. Even if faculty authors are in breach of their warranties, what would the damages be? Authors are (typically) giving away their work for free. And (much to consternation of OA advocates) the availability of scholarship in IRs does not appear to date to have reduced publisher revenues.  Besides, the publishers’ knowledge of OA policies and  their relative sophistication have bad faith written all over them.

From experience, I can say that faculty non-compliance for fear of legal risk is a real phenomenon. Understanding the priority of conflicting transfers under Section 205 is not exactly common knowledge, and the in and outs of contract enforceability and damages are equally esoteric. What do faculty see? They see a promise to their publisher that would seem to prevent them from contributing to the repository.

At UC, our materials say not to worry about inconsistent agreements, but we don’t make the argument strongly enough. And, frankly, knowing that this practice might well give rise to contract liability (albeit, probably only nominal liability) is an uncomfortable position from which to be telling folks not to worry about it.

If the university believes that there’s nothing to worry about here (which I think is absolutely reasonable) it should take the additional step and put its money where its mouth is: promise to defend its authors against any actions alleging policy compliance to be a breach of the authors’ warranties. Own your policy! If the risk is truly nominal, which again is a reasonable position, then shifting the risk to the University should not be a big deal.

Owning your OA policy step 2: give up on the DMCA

Anybody reading this has probably heard some version of  this rant already. I’m sorry for beating this dead horse, but I’m only more convinced with time that this is important.  I’m thoroughly unconvinced by the argument that the placement of articles in institutional repositories in compliance with university open access policies is somehow a DMCA safe harbor eligible activity. Employees of an institution complying with an institutional policy? Those aren’t 512(c) “users,” those are “employees acting within the scope of their employment.” And you know what? That’s not a bad thing.

When operating as if were running a safe-harbor eligible operation, the institution effectively declines to exercise its knowledge and expertise of its policies and of the law,  and lets the decision of how to respond to a properly filed takedown request lie instead with faculty. Given that (a) faculty knowledge of the legal mechanics of OA policies is severely limited, (b) institutional interest in keeping covered in material in its repository is (in theory) high, (c) few takedown notices are issued to IRs to begin with, and (d) institutions should not be throwing their faculty under the bus for compliance with institutional policy, I’m not sure that this is an optimal means for handling takedown notices.

Owning your policy means standing up for it when challenged, whether the challenge takes the for of a takedown or a breach of contract action. It makes communicating with authors less complicated and it leaves the institution properly responsible for institutional policy. I think it’s a no brainer.

A semi-cooperative publishing model

Surprise: I have a few thoughts about publishing.

Let’s take folks at their word and assume that many are concerned about author remuneration in the book business. Let’s further assume that the authors they’re worried about are the ones who are actually struggling to make ends meet or are otherwise outside of (or on the periphery of) authorship as a profession for financial reasons. I’ve written elsewhere of my skepticism about the “grow-the-pie” approach traditionally associated with expanding copyright protections. Even if it worked (it’s a big if), I’d expect this to primarily reward existing market winners, making it a trickle-down approach to increasing author pay.

Finally, let’s assume we can’t just burn the whole thing down and start again. What are we to do? Well, here’s one quick publishing model that might help more equitably allocate reward:

Break down the author’s royalty into two segments. The first, and larger, segment is a traditional royalty based on total copies sold. This rewards the instinct that the market is somehow meritocratic and lets big sellers still be bigger winners.

The second segment (8%?) is diverted to a pool that is split between the publisher’s entire author list, probably on some pro rata basis depending on the number of total books currently with the publisher and the type(s) of publication at issue.

Couple this with a time-limited publishing agreement (twenty years?) to both (a) further allow standouts to capitalize on their success by leaving painlessly to monetize elsewhere, and (b) avoid dilution of the shared royalty pool by the accrual of titles over time. Books meeting certain sales standards are, of course, allowed to renew their contracts, although I imagine that scenario would probably be relatively uncommon.

Call it semi-cooperative publishing.

You could, of course, go with a purely cooperative model, but that’s a bit of a different discussion, and comes with its own sets of complications.

So who’s in? Should we do this thing?


Getting at the root of predatory publishing

Aside from being genuinely pernicious and problematic on its own terms, the predatory publishing problem creates extra frustrations to open access advocates by providing an easy mechanism for directing suspicion and ire at open access publishing generally. And while it’s frustrating when this sleight of hand is employed by known open access critics, it can also come from within the movement, particularly in the context of ongoing debates about the APC business model with which predatory publishers are so closely associated.

Most recently, Kevin Smith furthered this conflation when outlining his skepticism of APC-funded open access. In that piece, Smith  identifies the predatory publishing problem as at the heart of what’s wrong with APCs, writing that “‘predatory’ journals . . . can only exist because of the APC business model” and further that  APCs are “the root problem” behind predatory practices.

I don’t think this is right and, further, by reinforcing the association between open access publishing and predatory publishing, I think the line of reasoning poisons the well for the whole movement.  Moreover, misdirecting blame for predatory publishing only serves to distract us from formulating productive responses to the problem.

So what is behind predatory publishing? The low costs of publication meeting author incentives.

Too often the APC model is isolated as a root cause of predatory publishing, rather than as predators’ present best mode of operation.  But if APCs aren’t the causal driver, what is? I think a better explanation for the phenomenon is as the marriage of declining publishing costs and warped author incentives.

In a fully digital, online publishing environment, the costs involved in publishing decrease dramatically. This observation isn’t a surprise to anyone committed to open access; the idea that the costs involved in distributing scholarly articles are so close to zero that the price to read them can and should be made zero is a founding principle of the movement.

In general, low publishing costs are something we celebrate. Not only do they make open access possible, but they also facilitate entry into the publishing market.  Low costs of doing business are precisely how we are able to field new, public-minded competitors to the legacy players and explore new publishing models.

But the same conditions that provide all this promise also appeal to folks with fewer scruples.  Scholarly authors are often under intense pressure to publish, with some valuing publication sufficiently to be both willing to pay to do it and willing to overlook (whether inadvertently or intentionally) the failings of a given outlet. Predators have the means (low cost publication), motive (pecuniary gain), and opportunity (a large pool of scholars eager to publish) to do what they do. Importantly, they would have all these things whether or not APCs were employed by respectable publishers.

The point is that predatory publishing is best seen as a close cousin of “the fake news” problem. It isn’t a narrow phenomenon rooted in the niceties of how scholarly publishing is funded; it’s a manifestation of a much broader set of issues concerning the provenance and validation of information in a world where we’re all a name, a logo, and a website away from declaring ourselves publishers.

Predatory publishing is not just a scholarly publishing problem

In his article, Smith acknowledges that “[t]here are, of course, predatory practices throughout the publishing industry, and they take a lot of different forms.” This point is important and needs highlighting. If predatory publishing practices happen outside of areas where author-pays models are commonly accepted, it should suggest strongly that the acceptance of author-pays models are not the driver of the phenomenon.

And indeed, scholarly authors are not alone in being plagued by suspect or scammy publishing practices. While the pressures of “publish or perish” might be largely unique to the academy, as is the normalization in some sectors of pay-to-publish models (page fees in certain sciences, APCs in gold OA), many of the same patterns and tactics used by “predatory publishers” in the scholarly context are also used to earn pay-to-publish fees out of would-be trade authors. And this in an area where “[y]ou should never pay to be published” is common wisdom.

In my time serving as the executive director of Authors Alliance, I saw this problem firsthand while trying to assist members who had been, essentially, conned by less-than-legitimate publishing operations. The phrase “predatory publishing” hasn’t been adopted in these communities, but the concept and underlying causes are the same.

Resisting easy solutions

We would all like to distill the definition of “predatory publisher” down to one, easily identified, perfectly predictive, and unmistakable attribute. Imagine how functional journal blacklists would be if we could safely declare the charging of author fees always and everywhere illegitimate?

The first problem, of course, is that we know this isn’t true in practice. It wasn’t true when traditional subscription publications adopted page fees, it wasn’t true when PLOS and BMC adopted APC-funded OA, and it’s not true of the high-quality gold OA outlets operating today. An attack on APC-funded publications generally is necessarily over-inclusive. Are we happy to have an error cost in our methodology that we know takes takes down the good along with the bad?

Some commentators are explicitly comfortable with that cost. Take, for instance, Raghavendra Gadagkar, who in a note at the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science wrote that— 

[T]he ‘pay-to-publish’ model should be dismantled altogether. We should gradually create social and moral stigma, and eventually legal strictures, against paid publications; having paid for publishing scholarly papers should automatically devalue their prestige and eventually disqualify them from consideration.

Even if Gadagkar’s proposed stigmatization (and criminalization?) of APCs were successfully implemented, the approach would have the unfortunate effect of targeting good actors, while doing little to hurt the bad actors motivating the policy. Consider: do true predatory outlets have concern for the prestige of their publications? No. Do the authors who publish in them think they are buying such prestige? Well, sometimes—when they are confused about who it is they are actually publishing with—but, generally, no.  Are predatory actors concerned about the law? Well, the worst predatory publishers are already on the wrong side of the law in many jurisdictions, and it hasn’t seemed to do much to ameliorate the problem.

Instead, all of these levers primarily bear on the folks who already have a commitment to operating within the system. It’s like going after fare avoiders by locking the turnstile. The jumpers still get over fine, but the folks who would happily pay the fare are locked out.

Understanding the problem in this light doesn’t  mean we have to be fatalistic and it doesn’t make us technological determinists.  But it does suggest that the root causes of the problem are deep and complex enough to require active, ongoing, and dynamic countermeasures. Accept no less and nothing simpler.

The takeaway

While it’s easy to invoke the specter of predatory publishing to discredit a model of open access one doesn’t like, everyone in the open access movement should walk away from this line of argumentation. Why? Because we should all know by now that predatory publishing  is not going away anytime soon,  and continued confusion about its connection to OA hurts everyone. It should be our shared goal to work to counteract predatory practices and to distinguish these from the work done by trustworthy open access outlets. But there’s simply no good to be done by continuing the conflation of any kind of “open” and “predatory.”

As for APCs, let’s continue having the important and serious discussions about their place in open access scholarship and their effects on the dynamics, incentives, and accessibility of scholarly publishing. But let’s move beyond the  under-developed charge that APCs are behind predatory publishing.


Quick disclaimer re the “.attorney” TLD

I want to issue a quick disclaimer pointing out that, yes, I know this TLD is kind of dumb—I mean, .attorney, really?

The basic story here is that being named “Michael Wolfe” is not a particularly great thing when it comes to domain name acquisition. There are just an awful lot of us out there.

A clever person would have bought an arbitrary or fanciful domain instead, but I hit enough dead-ends with that approach, that ultimately I figured it would be easier to just buy my name with a goofball TLD.

So there you have it. I am an attorney, technically, but this site has nothing to do with the advertising or provision of legal services.